Tough Tennessee trio among nation's best
Seattle Times colleges reporter
In Memphis, John Calipari picks up his cellphone — he gives out the number freely — and speaks the gospel of basketball in Tennessee.
Why be territorial? Judging from the polls, there's plenty of love to go around in the state that gave us Jack Daniel's.
It's borderline ridiculous. This week, Memphis is No. 2, 16-0 and hounding the school's first Final Four in 22 years. Tennessee is 14-1 and No. 6. Vanderbilt, which lost for the first time Saturday to Kentucky, is 16-1 and 16th.
Tonight, Vandy visits Tennessee, which serves to bring into focus some startling numbers.
The Vols and Commodores are 1-2 in the SEC in scoring at 86.7 and 86.0. Up-tempo Tennessee has a phenomenal 1.66 assist-turnover ratio, uncommonly high for a team that gets up and down. It also has an edge of 8.93 turnovers per outing, another outrageous number.
Vandy, meanwhile, leads the nation in three-point percentage at .439. The team that eliminated Washington State from the NCAA tournament last March has the SEC's Nos. 1-2 scorers in forward Shan Foster and Australian freshman big man A.J. Ogilvy.
Then there's Memphis, a classic draw-and-kick offensive outfit with extreme athletic ability. Calipari was asked if the Tigers are playing well.
"We're deep," he said. "We've got a lot of room for error. We're playing great defense and sharing the ball. We don't always make the right decisions, but we're not turning it over that much — 13 times a game. So yeah, I guess we are.
"The other day [in a 99-58 win over East Carolina], we had seven turnovers in 85 possessions. You gotta be kidding."
Who better, then, to take us on a tour of Tennessee than Coach Cal?
"We're all different," he says. "We [the Tigers] recruit Memphis, and we recruit the country. I'm not recruiting the rest of the state unless somebody calls me and says he wants to come.
"Tennessee will try to come here and recruit some, but the kids we want here, we're going to get."
Calipari boasts that 16 of the past 19 Tigers have graduated, but he concedes that Vanderbilt is "the crème de la crème of academics. They're there with Stanford and Rice."
Tennessee, he says, is a full eight hours across the state from Memphis.
"They're closer to Washington, D.C., than they are Memphis," he says. "They dominate the state now because of legislators and because of money. I wish they did more for our school; in the past 20 years, the only real estate dollars they've spent on our campus are for building a new law school downtown.
"But we accept it. Our basketball program hasn't been hurt by it."
Tennessee has Knoxville all to itself. Vandy, in Nashville, and Memphis have to contend with professional sports. Calipari notes Memphis is the only college program in the country that regularly shares an arena with an NBA team.
"The basketball here is huge," Calipari said, speaking of the state. "But it's never going to overtake football in the SEC."
Memphis schedules Tennessee; in fact, Calipari says the Vols, who visit Feb. 23, will be "the most talented team to come into our building" in his eight seasons there. He says that a breath before noting that the Vols "foul, like on every possession."
Asked if he has tried to schedule Vandy, Calipari says he puts the 'Dores into the category of other SEC schools like Arkansas and Mississippi trying to establish a beachhead in the rich talent pool of Memphis.
"I don't want to play SEC schools," he says. "If they want to play us, they should put us in the league. I'd rather play Syracuse and Illinois and Gonzaga. It doesn't mean those aren't great schools. But they don't want you in the league, they just want to use you."
In the always eventful Missouri Valley Conference, down is up and up is down. Several of the league's recent kingpins, including Southern Illinois (8-9), are struggling. Meanwhile, the co-leaders are Drake (15-1) and Illinois State (14-3), both at 6-0 in the MVC.
Drake, on a school-record 14-game winning streak, hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since the school had its only breakthrough in a three-year run from 1969-71. Illinois State hasn't gone since 1998.
Drake's first-year coach is Keno Davis, whose father Tom headed the Stanford program for four years (1983-86) before Mike Montgomery. He moved on to Iowa, then Drake, and retired from coaching last year to take a position as a special assistant to the athletic director.
"I've enjoyed having him still around, not just in the development of the program, but to run ideas off of," says Keno Davis.
At Illinois State, another first-year coach is prospering. That's Tim Jankovich, who played briefly for George Raveling at Washington State before transferring to Kansas State in the late 1970s.
Jankovich has most recently been an assistant to Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt and then Bill Self at Illinois and Kansas. He recalls how Vandy's holdovers in 1999 were receptive to a new staff, and those at Kansas in 2003 weren't.
"Coming here, it was much more like the first one," he says.
It has been similarly bouncy for Davis, who says, "I'm not expecting us to be 29-1 or anything like that. It's hard to even believe. You've got to pinch yourself every day."
The teams meet Saturday. It will mark the first time two 6-0 Valley teams have played each other.
And what's more...
• Kevin Coble, a 6-8 Northwestern forward from Phoenix, scored 34 points on 14 of 18 in a losing effort against Michigan in his second start after a 10-game absence to be with his mother while she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer.
• California forward Ryan Anderson is 27 for 51 on threes in his past 10 games, and he has also downed 34 of his last 36 free throws.
• Good for Xavier, which refused to accept Rivals.com's weekly mid-major player-of-the-week award for guard Drew Lavender because of objections to being labeled "mid-major." It's a silly, amorphous term that defies definition.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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